Lolita is both sensual and challenging, shocking and learned. Its content is lewd but moving and its style is high but not above blunt jokes. It’s hard for me to put how I feel about it into words, but I’ll do my best.
Lolita is the story of a literary, effeminate pedophile who captures a youngster (by becoming her legal guardian – I don’t want to give too much away though) and sleeps with her in a number of seedy hotels across America. It’s told as a frame story while the narrator is in prison, recollecting his memoirs to be published only after both he and his beloved are dead. It’s also the observations of a European man on American culture and society, and many of the scenes bring out the contrast between old European Humbert and young American Lolita. He’s dusty and sour, she’s sweet and naive; he’s cultivated, she’s fresh.
The part that kills me about reading Lolita is that you can feel Humbert Humbert’s love for her, even though you know that what he’s doing to her is pretty sick. You can see from the first page the kind of rapt attention he puts into every detail:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
You also get the sense from these words that the Lolita he loves is partly created in his imagination – separate from Lola, Dolly, and Dolores. The word he uses for girls like Lolita is “nymphet”, which has mythical origins, and to H.H. they seem unearthly somehow (it might be that they remind him of his childhood love, so his feelings towards them are half regarding them physically and half regarding his memories). It’s strange that the word “lolita” found roots in our vocabulary while “nymphet” never got adopted, though it’s the word H.H. used as a categorical term. Well… Lolita’s more fun to say, and nymphet sounds too high-brow, so it’s not really too surprising. And I wonder how many people actually read Lolita…
Here’s something else about Lolita in pop culture: Lolita has “chestnut brown” hair in the book but in all the movies and on most of the book covers she has blond hair.
Blond haired girls seems to be portrayed as both more innocent and sexier than brown haired girls, so maybe it makes the cover more attractive, and at the same time suggests innocence? Although in the book she has an IQ of 120 and loses her virginity before H.H. gets his hands on her, so she’s not really too innocent… but we want to think of her that way because we want H.H. to hold all the responsibility for having sex with her, because he’s the adult and she’s about ten years old, and since sexuality comes with a lot of responsibility, we don’t like to consider that young children might have a developed sexuality. This is totally reasonable, but it kind of erodes Lolita’s subjectivity and makes her just a captive object of H.H.’s lust (which she is to the extent that she can’t leave her situation). Lolita’s feelings are still a bit mysterious because we’re never told what she’s thinking, only H.H.’s speculations – I think her longest speaking part is, “The Girl Scout’s motto… is also mine. I fill my life with worthwhile deeds such as–well, never mind what. My duty is–to be useful. I am a friend to male animals. I obey orders. I am cheerful.” And even that is more of a riddle than a statement.
When you’re reading Lolita, you get so caught up in Humbert’s emotions that feel innocent and even helpless, that when it’s over and he realizes what he’s done to her it’s devastating because you as the reader go through all the guilt and shame with him. Near the end, he imagines what she’s thinking as she’s rejecting him, “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” Lolita was published in 1955, but the boldness of that line has a modern resonance.
It was about ¾ through that I realized that Lolita and Darconville’s Cat have the same plot: a teacher in his thirties falls in love with a schoolgirl, she leaves him for someone else, he’s confronted with a demonic double of himself, he writes a book, and then dies. It’s a pretty bleak plot, but that’s kind of the point. Darconville’s Cat and Lolita are both a little bit nihilistic in that neither of the characters find meaning outside of aesthetics. Darconville’s Cat is obsessed with finding meaning but tragically never succeeds, and Lolita simply doesn’t care, it’s happy to just enjoy the sun and be beautiful. In both books the style plays lead guitar and plot plays rhythm. Darconville’s Cat has spawned a project over at Goodreads to collect and define its vocabulary, and you would probably need the annotated edition of Lolita to catch all the obscure words and references, so they both like to push the envelope with the English language, incorporating neologisms, antique vocabulary, and words borrowed from other languages. Lolita even has one multilingual passage (you can notice some English mixed in with Latin and others):
“Seva ascendes, pulsata, brulans, kizelans, dementissima. Elevator clatterans, pausa, clatterans, populus in corridoro. Hanc nisi mors mihi adimet nemo! Juncea puellula, jo pensavo fondissime, nobserva nihil quidquam; but, of course, in another moment I might have committed some dreadful blunder.”
What does that mean? The annotated edition has it as “The sap ascendeth, pulsates, burning, itching, most insane, elevator clattering, pausing, clattering, people in the corridor. No one but death would take this one from me! Slender little girl, observing nothing at all” I might read the annotated edition at some point and might not, because although Lolita is a gorgeous novel, it does drag in the middle, and it is kind of slow. Given a few years, though, I’d read it again, just to see what affects me differently (I might empathize less with Lolita and be more disgusted with Humbert as I get older, especially if I have children). My advice to anyone choosing an edition is to read the non-annotated edition if you want to read in the flow without being distracted by notes, and get the annotated edition if you want to read it thoroughly without having to look things up yourself (I probably should have read the annotated edition myself, because at the end I felt like I didn’t quite “get it”, so if you’re someone who likes to read really closely, the annotated edition would have more to offer you).
And just for fun, here’s how not to review Lolita.